For the past two-three months, I have observed changes in our country and pondered what they mean for me, just a regular person. Over and over I have caught myself responding poorly to divisiveness by dismissing the divider. I have grappled with affirming the person even though I rejected his or her message. It is too easy to come to a point of disagreement and cast out the opponent. This is disheartening to me, and I’m not sure that is healthy or even necessary. As a Quaker who truly desires to be a better one, I have been having an internal brawl. It’s as if my insides are two brothers in bunk beds. One pokes the upper mattress from below, and the upper bunk mate throws a punch from above. It’s time to call lights out and a truce.
I believe that stories, just as parables, give context that help us both dissect and remember. So I have two true stories.
Friends of mine have a large family now including great grandchildren. They raised five children, three sons and two daughters. One daughter we will call Annie, very sadly died of cancer as a young mother herself.
My friends’ family gets together at least twice a year for a day of visiting, eating, playing ball in the yard, and enjoying each other. But for one reason or another, one son-in-law and grandson had been unable to attend one of these gatherings nearly a year ago, so my friend had not seen either until recently during the holidays. When they were together, she was appalled by what she saw. Her son-in-law and teenaged grandson had long hair, by her description, very long hair. In her astonishment, she blurted out in her deep Southern accent, “You look like hippies. Disgraceful hippies!”
My internal response was “Oh no. This can’t be good.” Her face was bloodless as she told me how her son-in-law had turned and looked at her square-on and said, “We’ve grown it on purpose so we can donate it to Locks of Love in Annie’s name.”
She knew immediately what she had done…regretfully, very regretfully. She had assumed that their long hair meant something bad—disgraceful hippies. But actually, their “different” was pure love. Maybe “different” wasn’t so bad after all.
It simply added to my internal fisticuffs concerning how we define “different” and how we may jump automatically to the conclusion that different equals bad. Phil Gulley has often said, “We are so sure we are right. We know that we know. But an event occurs, and we are humbled, deeply humbled.”
I’ve thought a lot about this, and it seems that to auto-respond with non-acceptance may be to nourish hate and the peril of bullying or fighting. Living in the Light is not for benchwarmers, and it’s not like fast food, hot one minute, cold and greasy the next. It is not a singular activity to live in the Light and find at least a sliver of it in others. We are called to love—from our identical twin all the way to the outcast and unloved. And to do this, we must first accept.
In New York City on Fifth Avenue is a church that is one of the oldest structures in the city. I have worshipped in that church, and I would describe it as the matron of the area. Some years ago, a new pastor arrived after the retirement of the former pastor who had served for many, many years. The new pastor with his “new” eyes saw the dire situation of homelessness, poverty, and hunger in the city. He began to patiently campaign for a new mission for the church to answer some of those problems. He proposed the unused fellowship hall, which was directly under the sanctuary, be opened for a night shelter, and that proposal led to the idea of developing a soup kitchen in the space as well. These new-fangled ideas caught on slowly, very slowly, because this was a church of wealth and vintage and tradition full of NY Blue Bloods (not the Tom Selleck kind), and these ideas were revolutionary to many members. The pastor did not relent with his message. He said, “What better investment can we make on this earth than to engage, to reach out to those who are in need, those who may differ from us.” As Rev. Beth Woodard wrote recently, “What might develop if we broke bread with love and regard with those of different faith, politics, color, lifestyle, or circumstance?” I wondered if doing as she suggested might at least allow us to mingle one part joy with two parts of their pain?
So as plans for repurposing the fellowship hall were drawn, it became obvious that updating heating, ventilation, wiring, and plumbing systems downstairs would necessitate the same utilities be updated above. It seemed wise as well that the sanctuary be renovated to both preserve and update it at the same time. A sizeable capitol campaign ensued, but it joyfully became symbolic of more than just physical renovations, but in fact a major shift of the church’s intent and mission. Many artisans, most not born in the US, were employed to repair and preserve the beautiful wood carvings, gold and porcelain, and stained glass aspects of the ornate sanctuary. Among them was a young Puerto Rican man, himself an artist, who was restoring the vintage paintings.
The decision was made by the elders and various church members that the traditional picture of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane which hung over the pulpit would be replaced with a more updated portrayal. Much discussion and deliberation ensued, and the young artist heard much of it as he worked daily. He approached the pastor with the proposition that he himself would paint the portrait. He’d heard all the conversations around him, and he knew the intent was to have a more relevant painting, something that bespoke Jesus among them. “It will be the greatest honor of my life,” he said, and he would do it without compensation. The goodness of the act itself would be the payment, BUT no one must see his work until it was presented to the congregation on Dedication Sunday.
That day arrived, and at the insistence of the elders and pastor, the artisans who had worked tirelessly and with uncommon love on the fine points of the renovation were seated on the front pews so as to honor them. The moment came when the portrait of Jesus would be unveiled. The young artist arose and climbed a ladder at the back of the pulpit to remove the drape. As it dropped, there was a gasp that arose among all gathered. The young artist beamed as he heard the audible approval, though, in fact it was not approval. It was horror!
There was a portrait of Jesus, sure enough. His face was compassionate, engaging, loving, and all-understanding. But. He was wearing a casual sweater, canvas shoes, a madras button-down shirt not tucked in, jeans, he was clean-shaven, and he had a crew cut. A crew cut! No Jesus they knew had a crew cut. Now there were, in fact, those in the congregation who had gasped who themselves had crew cuts. Where were the seamless robe and sandals and beard? This was no Jesus anyone knew at all. He was soooo different! How would a guy in madras be their spiritual leader? Was this Jesus even still THEIR Jesus?
But the painter had responded to the charge he was given, and that was to envision a relevant Jesus in relevant ministry, and to get him out of imprisonment in the Garden. An updated Jesus, one moving toward the current needs and pains of all. After all there is no description of Jesus written in the Bible, no dress code for him. This new vision could not be scrubbed away from the minds of the congregants with Handi-Wipes or a spritz of rosewater. Had “the Jesus” been taken out of this Jesus? He was just TOO different.
Well, the rest of the story is not so important here, though I can tell you there is a very good ending. It may seem that to focus on clothing and hair is to be very small especially in a world that is FULL of different. What is important is what we think as we sit on the bleachers looking on because that thought will come alive in our actions. Sometimes the loudest message is one without words, and that is what we listen for. What is important is what we do with “just TOO different.”
I don’t see how we can reach peace or accord or unity until we lay down the notion that those like us can gain our acceptance and those who aren’t, can’t. If looking through a prism, we could see the many faces of others, we would see that many of those faces are just like ours. It might be one of Phil Gulley’s deeply humbling moments. Two of my favorite people have said it so well. The first is related to me, and he wrote, “We must aim our hearts and eyes at what binds us in commonality rather than what shears us apart because it is different from us.” Smart guy.
The second, Maya Angelou, in her poem, “The Human Family,” states it so very well, “We are more alike, my friend, than we are unalike.” Indeed, we are more alike, my friend, than we are unalike.
I offer two queries in the manner of Friends for us to consider:
How might we seek ways our brothers and sisters are more alike than unalike?
As we ponder and we see those who are not like us, does their difference diminish us as moral, inclusive agents in our thoughts, words, and deeds?
Martha Eakes is a retired RN from Greensboro. She cooks up cakes and puns (most of which are half-baked). She is very grateful for her connections at First Friends Meeting (Greensboro, NC) and its dedication to justice-seeking, tolerance, love and outreach to those who are in our community.